It’s a familiar routine. Your toddler is cranky and feels a little warm, so you grab a bottle of over-the-counter fever reducer and give him a dose.
Not so fast, though.
“We want parents to think twice before automatically giving their children over-the-counter medication like a liquid fever reducer when they think their child has a high temp,” said Stephanie M. Jernigan, MD, Pediatric Nephrologist and Co-Chief, Medicine at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “That’s because it’s easy to give a child too much medicine, and the consequences can be serious—even fatal.”
In the U.S., thousands of children visit emergency departments every year for problems related to medication reactions and errors in giving medicine at home.
Are you giving your child the right medication dosage?
Many parents unwittingly give their kids the wrong dose of liquid medicine—in some cases more than twice as much as instructed.
One study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that more than 80% of the 2,110 parents participating made at least one dosing error when dispensing liquid medicines, and that 68% of the errors were overdoses. The study also found that most errors occurred even when parents used a measuring cup. There were fewer errors when parents measured the dose with an oral syringe, the method recommended by doctors.
How to protect your child from common medication errors
Follow these tips on how to properly give your little one medicine to help you make sure you’re giving him medication safely and accurately.
For over-the-counter medications:
- Think twice. Before you reach for an over-the-counter medicine, make sure your child needs it. In many cases, medication isn’t needed for a quick recovery, especially with cases of the flu or a common cold. And if you’re unsure whether your child’s symptoms warrant medication, it’s always best to check with his doctor.
- Read the directions first. Follow the exact directions and dose recommendations for weight—rather than age—printed on medication labels.
- Check active ingredients. Read the active ingredients to avoid accidental overdose. Don’t give a child acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen when he is taking other medications that may also contain either. This includes over-the-counter cough and cold medicines.
- Know the daily dose. Always ask your physician or pharmacist what the maximum daily dose is for your child (based on their age and weight). Over-the-counter cough and cold medication is not recommended for kids under 6 due to side effects.
- Be patient. It may take 60 to 90 minutes for these medicines to work. The temperature may not return to normal, but it should get better, which will make your child feel more comfortable.
- Check with your doctor. Acetaminophen should only be given to babies older than 3 months unless you have a doctor’s order. Ibuprofen should only be given to babies older than 6 months unless you have a doctor’s order.
- Adults only. Never give a child adult formulations of medications.
- Check labels. Check the medication label for expiration dates. Expired medications can lose their strength and be harmful.
- Follow the guidelines. Measure the dose out exactly using only medication syringes or the dispenser that came with the product. If your medication doesn’t come with a dosing device, ask the pharmacist for one. If you’re having trouble reading medication administration devices, you can always ask your nurse or pharmacist.
- Be accurate. Never use kitchen spoons as substitutes—they’re not accurate.
- Not advised. Never give a child aspirin or anything containing salicylates, especially during viral illnesses, unless it is specifically prescribed by your physician. Aspirin has been linked to Reye’s syndrome, a disease that can be fatal for kids.
For prescribed medications:
- External factors matter. Make sure your pediatrician and pharmacist know your child's weight, his allergies and all of the medicines he's taking, including other prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, herbal products, vitamins, supplements or home remedies.
- Contact your doctor. If you have any questions regarding your child’s medications, such as how much your child can take, drug interactions and food interactions, don’t hesitate to ask your physician or pharmacist and voice your concerns.
- Understand the prescription. When your child’s doctor writes a prescription, make sure you can read it. If you can’t read the handwriting, your pharmacist might not be able to either.
- Check your labels. When you pick up your child’s medicine from the pharmacy, make sure the label lists the medication your doctor prescribed, and the proper dose.
- Ask about dosages. If you have a question about the dosage, always ask. For example, “Does ‘four doses daily’ mean every six hours around the clock or just during waking hours?”
- Finish the prescription. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, be sure you give your child the full course, even if he appears to be better. Stopping antibiotics mid-course can give lingering bacteria a chance to grow back, resulting in the need for even stronger antibiotics.
Better protect your child from a medication-related emergency
In addition to monitoring dosage, there are several things you can do around your home to keep a child safe.
Nearly 60,000 children are seen at emergency departments each year because they took a medicine they weren’t supposed to*. This may happen when a toddler figures out how to open a medicine cabinet in the bathroom, or if a parent doesn’t explain medication dosages correctly to a caregiver.
A few things to be mindful of around the home:
- Store medicine properly. Store all medication out of children’s sight and reach. In 86% of emergency department visits for medicine poisoning, a child took medicine belonging to a family member.
- Out of reach. Consider alternate places children could find medicine. We often carry our medicine in purses or store it in nightstands. Place purses or bags out of reach and avoid leaving medicine in or on a bedside table or dresser.
- Not just prescription medicine. Consider products you might not think of as medicine. Health products, such as vitamins, diaper rash creams, eye drops and even hand sanitizer can also be harmful to children.
- Be concise. Write clear instructions for caregivers. They need to know what medication to give your child, how much to give him and when to give it to him. Using a medicine schedule can help communicate better with caregivers.
- Know the number. Save the local poison control center help number in your cellphone.
But remember this number is not for emergencies, but for questions about how to give or take medicine safely. Be sure to follow these guidelines the next time you fill a prescription for your child or pick up an over-the-counter medication, and don’t hesitate to ask for more information if you are even just a little bit unsure about what medicine is best for your child.